PUMP AND DUMP CHUMPS

Yesterday I received an email nearly identical to emails I have received from two other people in the past few weeks, and it's getting me increasingly ticked off. Not that people I know want to share information with me or ask my opinion, but that such an obvious scam has managed to put down deep roots in the popular consciousness.

The content of the three emails boiled down to: I'm being told I should convert all of my liquid assets from cash into gold. Is this a good idea?

I do not fault anyone for asking the question. The idea has some intrinsic appeal. However, it brings me to the point of wanting to choke something to think about how many people are going to get screwed in the long run as a result of taking non-objective financial advice. If you choose to read no further or are even remotely considering jumping on the gold bandwagon, please read this piece on gold myths versus reality from Seeking Alpha.

Prominent media personalities, notably Glenn Beck, are paid handsomely to hit their gullible, elderly viewers over the head repeatedly with the buy-gold-now message. Gold interests have also taken to advertising directly, either encouraging viewers to buy gold or exchange gold for cash (which is a scam unto itself). Compounding the message, holding gold and silver as a "hedge" against future (and impending!!!1!!) collapse of the dollar has long been a popular idea on the survivalist, hardcore libertarian right. Forwarded emails from friends and family have multiplied the effect of advertising, Beck boosterism, and email spam campaigns extolling the virtues of gold. Of course, the mainstream media compound the problem by breathlessly – and accurately – reporting the meteoric rise in gold prices over the past few years.

Of course prices have increased dramatically – gold interests have been working very hard and spending a lot of money for years in an effort to convince people that they need to buy. Like any other investment, high demand drives up the price. In many cases demand is not driven by fundamentals or reality, but by speculation and what Mr. Greenspan called "irrational exuberance." In this case, however, demand is being driven by a paid, well-crafted marketing campaign. It is a classic Pump & Dump, a scam as old as investing itself.

I buy some gold at $400/oz, promote the hell out of it until other people drive up the price to $1600/oz, and then I sell high. By the time the bubble bursts and everyone realizes that it is not actually worth $1600/oz, I and my profits are long gone. If you get on board early and are smart enough to sell high, you'll make some money too. Everyone who gets on the train after the first station, though, is going to lose money. The average AM radio-listening elderly person who believes everything Glenn Beck says is going to get reamed like you wouldn't believe.

What we're seeing now is a flurry of OMGBUYGOLD hysteria using the debt ceiling issue as a selling point – get out of cash now before the US dollar becomes worthless! Which will happen soon! When this bubble pops, just imagine what is going to become of people who are buying now, at $1600/oz. Before Granny, your neighbor Joe, and Uncle Larry the Survivalist realize what happened, their "investment" will be worth somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of what they paid. Someone who really does convert his or her life savings to gold – especially physical gold which can't be liquidated quickly or easily – could easily be ruined.

There are lots of ways to lose money in investing, but few as transparently silly as the recent obsession with holding "precious" metals. Put simply, as Mike Konczal once told me, "When cabdrivers and USA Today are telling you to get in on an investment, it's time to go short."

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54 Responses to “PUMP AND DUMP CHUMPS”

  1. acer Says:

    Meteors aren't rising – they're falling.

    I'm an anarchist, and I think buying gold now is insufferably dumb.

  2. David Says:

    Unfortunately there really is no safe investment anymore and government policy forces people to invest in something – anything – just so they don't see their cash savings whittled away by inflation. With TeaTards in Congress even Treasury Bills aren't completely safe anymore. Stocks are only as secure as the trust you have in the CEO running that company – who can change at any given time. Company's lie all the time about their finances and I'd be surprised if any of the large corporations didn't fudge their numbers to make their profits appear larger than they really are. Changes in technology and social norms can also make investing in a company's stocks dangerous (ie shares of Blockbuster or Borders Books).

  3. Tim H. Says:

    Buying gold now would be betting things will never get better. Not the likeliest in the long run, Wall $treet is fond of short term schemes.

  4. c u n d gulag Says:

    Yup, the precious metal scam, especially as practiced by Goldline, is a great way to seperate gullible, stupid, ignorant and/or scared people from their money. However, as part of a wide ranging investment porfolio, precious metals are generally a pretty sound investment.
    The tech and housing bubbles, which were targeted at generally more sophisticated people, were also great at seperating people from their hard-earned cash – while a bunch of goniff's and grifter's walked away rich, laughing at people.

    If anyone wants to read a great book about economic bubbles, as well as other scams and mass delusions, take a look at this 140 year-old book, which is still in print:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extraordinary_Popular_Delusions_and_the_Madness_of_Crowds

    Pay particular attention to the 'Dutch Tulip Scam,' which was a bubble based on flowers that pretty much took the Dutch, who at the time, the early-mid 17th Century, were a major sea and economic power, and pretty much turned them into, well, the Dutch as we know them today. Of course, the tulip scam wasn't the only factor. But it sure didn't help…
    As P.T. Barnum once said, "There's a sucker born every minute."
    Fortunes have been made and lost on that statement.
    Look no further than Bernie Madoff's recent Ponzi scheme for verification. Or an elderly Beck viewer hording $400 worth of gold that they paid $700 for.

  5. c u n d gulag Says:

    Ooops, that book is 170 years old.
    Sorry about the typo.

  6. Sluggo Says:

    There was a huge run up in gold and silver prices around 1980. Gold went to $1000/ oz and then the bubble burst. Gold prices probably recovered two years ago.

    This show is a rerun for anyone over 45.

  7. doug Says:

    gold 2K by year end.
    gold 5k in 5 years.

    Demand from China and India will help drive it.
    Gold as always been a store of wealth in China and India. The headcount of those two countries of people who can afford to buy gold has been exponential for a while and may continue that way.

    USA creating a gazzilion $ by cliking a mouse every few seconds will lower the value of the dollar. Gold will go higher in dollar terms.

    Miners are a better play than physical. Shorting them would be a great way to riches if you are correct that the price will drop. Buying them would be great if you are incorrect.

    We can all play a game of prediction, but perhaps not all of us are as sure of our predictions as you seem to be.

  8. J-Mo Says:

    I'm not a goldbug or a fan or Glenn Beck (jesus god, no!), but I have quite a lot of money in gold and silver. The picture painted here is very simplistic. Gold crashed in 1980, therefore never invest in it. Glenn Beck likes it, therefore never invest in it. By that standard, I shouldn't buy a house.

    Assuming prices will rise forever is stupid. Assuming all price rises are a bubble is also stupid.

    Not all gold investors are waiting for the end of days.

  9. Morbo Says:

    See also: http://streetlightblog.blogspot.com/2011/07/should-we-care-about-price-of-gold.html

  10. Monkey Business Says:

    On the upside, after the almost inevitable gold market crash, it'll wipe out the donor base of the Tea Party types.

  11. Ed Says:

    "gold 2K by year end.
    gold 5k in 5 years."

    Please don't quote the Goldline Email of the Day ™ here without attribution.

    Good to see that some of you have been suckered into this.

    No, this logic does not lead to "I should never buy a house." It leads to "I shouldn't buy a house after prices have skyrocketed to three times what the underlying asset is plausibly worth." Since you can't make that distinction, I can see why you got "All price rises are a bubble" from this.

  12. HoosierPoli Says:

    Yesterday I had to explain to my double-major-accounting-and-finance roommate how speculative bubbles can destroy money (through overleverage). This is apparently something you learn reading econ blogs but NOT taking econ classes.

  13. The Moar You Know Says:

    It's always a good idea to buy something when it's really, really expensive, and only $500/oz (adjusted dollars) away from the high it hit during the last bubble.

    Just had to talk the wife out of buying Apple stock for the same reason.

  14. J-Mo Says:

    Ed, you're assuming that you can determine what gold is "plausibly worth." I'm saying that that is a very difficult proposition.

    I should say that I have no doubt that gold will bubble. I'm just saying that I don't think it's there yet.

  15. Arslan Says:

    Economics courses became so dedicated to praising capitalism that they lost all connection to reality. A second form of economics had to be developed to teach how the system actually works in real life. It's called business school.

  16. The Moar You Know Says:

    gold 2K by year end.
    gold 5k in 5 years.

    DOW 36,000!

    Cost of production of an ounce of gold is still between $300 and $400. The prices you postulate would require there to be a fixed supply of gold, to which no more can be added. But that's simply not the case. Like cash, we can always mine and refine more gold.

  17. The Moar You Know Says:

    Sluggo: I'm 45. Remember Krugerrands?

    Ha, those were good times. Unless you owned gold. You didn't even have enough time to congratulate yourself on your wise investment before the gallows door dropped out from under you.

  18. doug Says:

    I did not say anything about the DOW? WTF?
    Do we have an infinite supply of gold? like oil? like water? like trees to early settlers?
    I am not saying there is a fixed supply at this point in time. I am saying the demand is shifting. And gold remaining to be mined is getting more expensive to do so. Like oil.

    In the long run there is a fixed supply as well. Like oil like water and like trees which have been thought at times to be infinite.

    Ed, it is good to see you know the future so well. Go short gold and make a fortune. Use leverage, etc. go man go

  19. Elder Futhark Says:

    The only time gold has paid off for me is when I have hit rich travellers on the head with a cudgel and taken their bag.

    Oh, and that one time me and my partner had that guy fill up a room with it to the height of his outstretched hand and then hung him anyway for being a heretic.

  20. deep cap Says:

    I wish I bought gold back in '08. I could sell it today for a fortune.

    Anyone who buys today is (probably) making a mistake though.

  21. Ed Says:

    "gold 2K by year end.
    gold 5k in 5 years."

    Good to see you know the future.

    Then again, this is the integral part of Pump & Dump – loudly blaring predictions promising BIG BIG PROFITS!!!! to anyone who buys in now.

    The price of gold has little to do with quantity, finite or otherwise, and lots to do with speculation. You've speculated. That's fine. I hope you get out and end up with a profit. But cons don't work without marks.

  22. Cackalacka Says:

    "And gold remaining to be mined is getting more expensive to do so. Like oil."

    Yes, and much like oil, gold is burned when it is consumed.

  23. doug Says:

    Ed, I was just playing the mugs game of prediction as you did.
    Neither of us know what will happen.
    And where did I say I owned any gold or gold mining stock?

  24. Eric Titus Says:

    I don't know a ton about the gold market, but I would guess that this is more of a classic bubble and less of a "pump and dump" situation. The reason is that Beck fanatics and the like are a miniscule fraction of gold investors–John Paulson alone probably has more invested in gold than they do. I have gotten one request for advice on the matter, and my response was that gold is, at the moment, a speculative rather than safe investment, and a bad long-term investment, and that anyone interested in investing in gold should buy a financial instrument like an ETF, NOT a potentially fraudulent company like Goldline. Or buy some gold jewelry–at least that might be good for something. But I would not go so far as to say that valuations putting gold higher are completely ridiculous, I'd just rather be owning a company. Tell them to compare an IBM chart to gold, and decide whether they'd rather own a commodity that could drop 50% in a month, or a company that has been going strong for a hundred years.

  25. ladiesbane Says:

    The farmers in my family like gold, because it has no provenance and they live close to the border. Shit gets too hairy, they can become Canadian overnight, and gold can get them a new start that a devalued fiat currency can not. They lived through that in the old country, and it's a fear they'll never forget. But it's not an investment, any more than a lifejacket is an investment. Their real faith is in the farm. Those who raise sustenance crops never starve during extended unemployment, or even depressions, no matter how cash-light they become. And they are not self-important fools who think precious metals speculation means they are outwitting the Illuminati, the Rothschilds, and the NWO.

    But even my country family know better than to buy at the top of the market. I always think of my coworkers, MBAs included, who proudly proclaim that they never play Powerball unless the prize is over $350 million. Really, smartypants? When your chances are their absolute worst? Way to go. Now go buy some gold at the worst possible price, so you'll be guaranteed to lose money. You make money by selling at the top, not buying at the top. Please note that if you need an English major to explain "buy cheap and sell dear" to you, you probably shouldn't be investing at all. Save it. At least you won't lose money that way.

    "Gold" is one of those small words for a big idea, like "sex", "love" and "God." You may have unrealistic expectations of what it can do for you. This has been a public service announcement. The More You Know!

  26. Glenn Friesen Says:

    So, how should I help my colleagues who think buying gold is a good idea, and who refuse to read your blog?

  27. Andrew Says:

    If gold is such a good investment, why is Goldline willing to sell you all they have for your supposedly useless dollars? Seems to me no rational company would offer to make that trade…

  28. The Moar You Know Says:

    God, I can't help myself.

    Doug, a knowledge of the field of economics, and some modern history (at least that within the last decade) would have helped you understand an easily grasped reference:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dow_36,000

    Gold at $5k/ounce is prediction-making on a par with the DOW 36,000 people.

    Good luck with that gold thing. I wouldn't touch it with a 20-foot pole.

  29. Eric Titus Says:

    Ladiesbane: great comment. But I wonder what sort of hairy situation those farmers are imagining where they would leave their homes and move to Canada. A dust-bowl scenario? You'd have been perfectly fine holding dollars. Total anarchy in the US, hyperinflation? Farmers generally benefit in that scenario. As you say, gold is more of an idea than an investment, but I hope your family is making an investment as well in case they need something like emergency medical care or some retirement savings.

  30. Put a Gold Ring on it Says:

    @ladiesbane:
    "'Gold' is one of those small words for a big idea, like 'sex,' 'love' and 'God.' You may have unrealistic expectations of what it can do for you."

    Marry me.

  31. Alan C Says:

    I don't know whether buying gold is a good investment or not, but why is gold valuable in the first place? Isn't it just because we say it is? How is it any different from paper currency then? The only difference to me seems to be that we've valued gold for a lot longer.

  32. Jimcat Says:

    @Alan C: you're quite right, most of the value of gold comes simply from the desire of people to own it. As the old saying goes: "The worth of a thing is what it will bring." Gold has some intrinsic value for its uses as a ductile, noncorrodable metal. And the "natural" price of gold would be something close to what it costs to mine and refine the metal and bring it to market. All the rest of the price is driven simply by demand.

  33. doug Says:

    The Moar you know:
    One person wrote the Dow 36000 thing. almost everybody sentient said he was full of shit.
    There are plenty of respected financial analysts making the 5K in five years call. I have no idea who is right.
    I own one gold coin which I received from my Dad when he died.

    To Cackalacka: nice one :-) you got me there friend. bad analogy. Hoarding is not the same as getting rid of it. Very true. my bad.

  34. Major Tom Says:

    "
    The farmers in my family like gold, because it has no provenance and they live close to the border. Shit gets too hairy, they can become Canadian overnight, and gold can get them a new start that a devalued fiat currency can not.
    "

    You might point out to your family farmers that one cannot, in fact, become Canadian overnight.

    It takes two to three weeks of practice to get the "eh?" and "aboot" just right.

    Maybe the people who already live in Canada could move to Detroit – I understand the housing is cheap.

  35. mike Says:

    Given the state of the debt ceiling "negotiations" right now, I'm thinking that my investment plan should be wads of Euros stuffed in my mattress.

  36. Townsend Harris Says:

    Always ask "who's selling into the rise?"
    "Pump and dump" isn't limited to precious metals and securities. It's the strategy of the Dropout Factory I teach at.

  37. nobody Says:

    Mike: "Given the state of the debt ceiling "negotiations" right now, I'm thinking that my investment plan should be wads of Euros stuffed in my mattress."

    That's what everyone I know with a head on their shoulders was saying for the couple years leading up to the housing crisis. It sounded so reasonable. We know the U.S. economy is tied up in this bubble; we know that bubble is going to pop. I remember hearing the even Dick Cheney was moving a good amount of his invenstments into Euro-denominated funds. (Not sure if that was true; this was in 2006 or so? Maybe 2007?)

    Unfortunately, the Euro got hit even worse.

  38. Robert Says:

    I don't mind being underwater on my house, because it wasn't an investment. Living in it was the goal, and it works fine for that. I wouldn't be comfortable living in a bag of Krugerrands.

    Given the 'buy this magazine or we'll shoot this economy' shtik the Party of Noh is running, makes me wonder how many of their leaders are shorting dollars right now.

  39. Neal Deesit Says:

    @ladiesbane

    "I always think of my coworkers, MBAs included, who proudly proclaim that they never play Powerball unless the prize is over $350 million. Really, smartypants? When your chances are their absolute worst? Way to go."

    The chances of winning the prize are the same for every Powerball ticket, regardless of the size of the prize. A bettor chooses 6 numbers: 5 between 1-59, and 1 between 1-39. The odds of any Powerball ticket's winning the prize are 1 in (59^5) x 39 = 1 in 27,882,047,661.

    The expected value of a wager is the odds of its paying off times the value of the prize. The expected value of a 1 in 10 chance of winning $1000 is $1000/10, or $100.

    A Powerball ticket's chances of winning are fixed, but its expected value grows with the size of the prize. So your coworkers are being rational; they have decided that they will spend a dollar on a Powerball ticket only when its expected value is greater than $350,000,000/27,882,047,661, or about 1.25ยข.

  40. Nate Says:

    NPR's Planet Money did a series on the gold bubble. Not all brilliant, but almost certainly always entertaining.

    Here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/07/21/138536348/the-gold-boom-then-and-now

    And here:
    http://www.npr.org/templates/archives/archive.php?thingId=133252308

  41. bb in GA Says:

    I don't have a clue how big a hammer a Soros or Koch Brother level, big league speculator could have on the gold market. But for the sake of discussion, let's pretend it's not a rigged game.

    We have more than 6E09 other people on earth besides Beck enthusiasts.

    If 1% of those folks were able and interested in purchasing gold that would be 60,000,000 customers.

    In the US that would be about 40% of the adult population to swing an equivalent hammer. Y'all think there are that many gold bugs in the US of A? Or is the 1% SWAG way too high?

    In other words, if my assumptions are reasonable, Granny watchin' Glenn and calling Rosland, Gold Line, or Merit ain't likely to be blowing the bubble.

    //bb

  42. xynzee Says:

    @bb: Damn you! Always the acoustic tile in our echo chamber!

    However, that still doesn't negate the "Goldline is a scam". What this does show that the time to buy big is after the collapse. Then sit on it.

    Gold like property isn't going *anywhere* (unless you buy in Love Canal). You may have to wait 30+ years for the next spike, but it will go up.

    Why gold? Because gold doesn't corrode (at least not easily), and therefore stays pretty for a long time. So if you buy 1oz of 99.99% pure gold and let it sit in normal atmospheric conditions for 10 years, it will only degrade slightly. Your 1oz of gold, will be fairly close to the same 1oz of gold you purchased. Let iron (a more practical metal) sit in the same conditions, it will degrade considerably. I'm sure there are people here with Chem and Physics backgrounds who can explain it better than I ever could.

    Hopefully, as was said earlier, when the bottom drops out it takes the Teabagger support with them. Of course I'm interested in seeing how the Beckerheads will try to blame the Left for undermining the value of the Gold!

    @David (7:06am): I'm wondering if part of the reason there's so much trouble with selling raising the debt ceiling and resistance to even Wall Street, S&P and Moody's warnings has a lot to do with their failure during the GFC. Weren't S&P and Moody's saying what good investments these companies and institutions were? Knowing someone who knew some *very* important things about Enron and how they got their rating, really leaves their word as pretty useless.

  43. HoosierPoli Says:

    No one is denying that gold as a substance is valuable. But I think it's pretty obvious that the current price is a speculative bubble that is bound to burst and hurt a lot of people. Perfectly good money will go down the toilet.

  44. Vinny Says:

    It's pretty plain to me that this whole gold buying marketing campaign is a scam. What really got me mad though, is that the liberal shows I listen to like Thom Hartman and Stephanie Miller both run advertisements for buying gold. The ads are recorded by the hosts, and that's what got under my skin. Thom Hartman is a very intelligent guy and I don't understand why he's doing these commercials. Okay maybe it's the money, but it's really disgusting.

  45. Strangepork Says:

    While I don't look forward to the Fall of Western Civilization (much), I do kind of hope I get to see few Glenn Beck fans trying to glean sustenance by eating their commemorative gold coins.

  46. Nick Says:

    If you want to survive the apocalypse, stockpile ammunition, toilet paper, and cigarettes. Shiny rocks have no utilitarian value.

  47. Arslan Says:

    I would recommend Yuan. I for one welcome our new Chinese masters. Ni hao!

    Seriously though, gold WILL be very important if the Psychlos from Battlefield:Earth turn out to be real. For some reason this advanced race is very interested in a shiny metal.

  48. gruaud Says:

    I bought in when Bush the Lesser was re-selected in 2004, betting
    that he'd crash the economy.

    As soon as gold hit a thousand, I sold and never looked back.

  49. Gold is no answer Says:

    I was worried about the coming economic collapse. But I decided against investing in gold and silver.

    Instead I heavily invested into two other metals: copper and lead, i.e.., copper jacket lead bullets, and lot's of them!